An insult

(From Dark Star by Alan Furst):

He shook his head sorrowfully. “And in the end, when it’s our turn, and somebody else is doing what has to be done, somebody else who doesn’t ask to see the sense of it, the discipline of the executioner, then all we can say is za cbtoì—why? What for? ” Kuscinas laughed. “A sorry little question,” he said. “For myself, I don’t mean to ask it.”

That night, Szara couldn’t sleep. He lay in his bunk and smoked, the man across from him mumbling restlessly in his dreams. Szara knew the history of that question, Za cbtoìRumor attributed its initial use to the Old Bolshevik Yacov Lifschutz, a deputy people’s commissar. His final word. Szara remembered him as a little man with wild eyebrows, the obligatory goatee, and a twinkling glance. Shuffling down the tile corridor in the basement of the Lubyanka—you got it on the way, nobody ever reached the end of that corridor—he stopped for a moment and turned to his executioner, an officer he happened to have known in childhood, and said, “Za chto?”

Along with the purge, the phrase spread everywhere; it was scrawled on the walls of cells, carved in the wooden benches of the Stolypin wagons that hauled prisoners away, scratched into planks in transit camps. Almost always the first words spoken to the police who came in the night, then again the first words of a man or a woman entering a crowded cell. “But why? Why?”

We are all alike, Szara thought. We don’t offer excuses or alibis, we don’t fight with the police, we don’t look for compassion, we don’t even plead. We are the people who called ourselves “dead men on furlough;” we always expected to die—in the revolution, the civil war. All we ask, rational men that we are, is to see the sense of the thing, its meaning. Then we’ll go. Just an explanation. Too much to ask?


The savagery of the purge, Szara knew, gave them every reason to believe there was, must be, a reason. When a certain NKVD officer was taken away, his wife wept. So she was accused of resisting arrest. Such events, common, daily, implied a scheme, an underlying plan. They wanted only to be let in on it—certainly their own deaths bought them the right to an answer—and then they’d simply let the rest of it happen. What was one more trickle of blood on a stone floor to those who’d seen it flow in streams across the dusty streets of a nation? The only insult was ignorance, a thing they’d never tolerated, a thing they couldn’t bear now.

In time, the cult of Za chto began to evolve a theory. Particularly with the events of June 1937, when the only remaining alternative to the rule of the dictator was ripped to shreds. That June came the turn of the Red Army and, when the smoke cleared, it was seen to be headless, though still walking around. Marshal Tukachevsky, acknowledged as Russia’s greatest soldier, was joined in his disappearance by two of four remaining marshals, fourteen of sixteen military commanders, eight of eight admirals, sixty of sixty-seven corps commanders, on and on and on. All eleven vice-commissars of defense, seventy-five of the eighty members of the Supreme Military Soviet. All of this, they reasoned; the shootings, the icebound mining camps, an army virtually destroyed by its own country— could have only one intention: Stalin simply sought to remove any potential opposition to his own rule. That was the way of tyrants: first eliminate enemies, then friends. This was an exercise in consolidation. On a rather grand scale, ultimately counted in millions— but what was Russia if not a grand scale?

What was Russia, if not a place where one could say, down through the centuries, times and men are evil, and so we bleed. This, for some, concluded the matter. The Old Bolsheviks, the Chekists, the officer corps of the Red Army—these people were the revolution but now had to be sacrificed so that the Great Leader could stand unthreatened and supreme. Russia’s back was broken, her spirit drained, but at least for most the question had been answered and they could get on with the trivial business of execution with acceptance and understanding. A final gesture on behalf of the party.

But they were wrong, it wasn’t quite that simple.

There were some who understood that, not many, only a few, and soon enough they died and, in time, so did their executioners, and, later, theirs.

Detection by happenstance

In such cases, when he could not follow the train of the reasonable, he coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable. Instead of going to the right places – banks, police stations, rendezvous – he systematically went to the wrong places; knocked at every empty house, turned down every cul de sac, went up every lane blocked with rubbish, went round every crescent that led him uselessly out of the way. He defended this crazy course quite logically. He said that if one had a clue this was the worst way; but if one had no clue at all it was the best, because there was just the chance that any oddity that caught the eye of the pursuer might be the same that had caught the eye of the pursued. Somewhere a man must begin, and it had better be just where another man might stop.

Chesterton, The Blue Cross


People sometimes mistake their own shortcomings for those of society and want to fix the cities because they don’t know how to fix themselves.

— Asimov

The trial

In most cases, the best strategy for a job interview is to be fairly honest, because the worst thing that can happen is that you won’t get the job and will spend the rest of your life foraging for food in the wilderness and seeking shelter underneath a tree or the awning of a bowling alley that has gone out of business.

— Lemony Snicket

Moral fashions

Although moral fashions tend to arise from different sources than fashions in clothing, the mechanism of their adoption seems much the same. The early adopters will be driven by ambition: self-consciously cool people who want to distinguish themselves from the common herd. As the fashion becomes established they’ll be joined by a second, much larger group, driven by fear. This second group adopt the fashion not because they want to stand out but because they are afraid of standing out.

— Paul Graham, What You Can’t Say

The bright side

There are people who ponder about their friends’ shortcomings: there’s nothing to be gained by that. I have always been on the lookout for the merits of my opponents, and this has been rewarding.

— Goethe

Making a clean break

Nothing built today must be mistakable for anything built 100 or more years ago. The rupture between our era and those of the past is absolute, and this unbridgeable gap must be made visible and manifest through the things we build. And since things were lovely in the past, they must, of necessity, be ugly now.

Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture


Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

— Ira Glass


Is it a fact — or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?

— Nathaniel Hawthorne

It is a principle aspect of the electric age that it establishes a global network that has much of the character of our central nervous system. Our central nervous system is not merely an electric network, but it constitutes a single unified field of experience.

— Marshall McLuhan